Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/18/conficker_nhs/

Another NHS hospital stricken with Conficker virus

Social healthcare disease

By John Leyden

Posted in Security, 18th February 2010 15:05 GMT

Analysis The infamous Conficker worm has infected yet another NHS facility.

Computer systems at the West Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust were infected by the worm last Friday, leaving hospital staff unable to book appointments via computer. The outbreak has been contained but some hospital IT systems remain unavailable, resulting in ongoing delays to patients and affecting the smooth running of the medical facility.

A hospital spokeswoman told El Reg that the malware infection, identified as the Conficker-A, struck on Friday afternoon. "Most of the computers had to be cleaned, so we've had to rely on a pen and paper system to book appointments. Technicians worked over the weekend to clean up systems. Priority systems are running but the clean-up is likely to last until the end of the week."

The Hounslow Chroncle reported on Tuesday that email and internet access was affected by the outbreak but net connections since largely been restored. A notice on the Trust's website warns patients to expect delays.

We are currently isolating the virus and cleaning the system.

This is causing some operational issues. We have implemented our business continuity plan and are operating manual systems as part of our standard procedure. We do have a number of computers working in several priority areas such as A&E, ITU, theatres and some out-patient departments.

We have contacted all our partner organisations and are doing everything we can to get back to normal. We apologise for the inconvenience that has been caused so far but do ask the local community to refrain from contacting the hospital for non-urgent requests.

A&E is open and accepting patients. If it is not an emergency, we would encourage the local community to contact their GP, visit their local pharmacy and use walk-in centres such as The Heart of Hounslow and Teddington Memorial Hospital where possible. More information about these services can be found at www.nhs.uk

The hospital has 400 beds and employs 1,900 staff to serve the needs of 400,000 residents in the London boroughs of Hounslow and Richmond-upon-Thames.

It's unclear how the infection occurred at West Middlesex but recent UK public sector Conficker infections have been blamed on either infected USB drives or external laptops.

Victims of the malware in the last month alone have included Greater Manchester Police, Mid Cheshire NHS Trust and Leeds NHS. The malware infection at GMP had severe operational consequences after senior officers decided to disconnect force systems from the Police National Computer and court systems for five days while a clean-up operation took place.

Conficker first began spreading in November 2008, initially taking advantage of a then recently patched Microsoft Windows vulnerability to spread. Since then its ability to spread via infected USB sticks onto host PCs and from there across weakly secured networks have come to the fore. Early victims included the Houses of Parliament, Ministry of Defence, Manchester City Council and several hospitals in the UK alone.

Old systems and buck passing blamed for weak NHS security

David Harley, director of malware intelligence at net security firm Eset, and an NHS IT manager for five years, told El Reg that continued problems with Conficker were far from confined to the public sector, despite the number of outbreaks in hospitals and government facilities since the start of the year.

"I don't think it's only the public sector," Harley said. "Our monthly statistics indicate that Conficker-related threats have been top of the pops for many months past: in January, it accounted for nearly 12 per cent of detections 'phoned home' by installations of Eset software worldwide."

It could be that hospital and other public sector systems include servers running NT4 and PCs running very old versions of Windows. Security software packages no longer support these systems and this may well be a contributing factor in recent outbreaks of Conficker, Harley explained.

"I wouldn't like to bet that there are no PCs at all sitting in medical centres and police stations that aren't running anti-virus because they run an OS that's no long supported by the organisation's scanner of choice, or hardware that can't take the extra load from an on-access scanner, or because there's inadequate system support to ensure that local security is maintained," he said.

Even without blanket anti-virus protection it ought to be possible to block the spread of Conficker via a combination of patching and other precautions, such as disabling AutoRun and applying strong passwords to network shares. However bureaucratic factors may be at work against the application strong security policies, according to Harley.

"UK government networks in general and the NHS in particular are, historically, heavily reliant on displacement of responsibility," Harley explained. "There is a naive belief that is not confined to the public sector, that you can outsource responsibility along with your core services."

"In the NHS, which is really an umbrella organisation comprising many semi-autonomous sites clustered around some common networking services, NHS Connecting for Health decided it wasn't in the business of network and end-point security, so it focused on confidentiality and the services it supplied nationally."

Privacy and data confidentiality issues are taken extremely seriously across the health service, while malware protection on computers languishes as a low priority, to sometimes disastrous effect.

"The main providers don't want to take responsibility for end-point security, and the centralized Threat Assessment facility I used to run gave way to a more community/peer-oriented model which effectively threw more responsibility back to end sites, Harley explained.

"I suspect that there are still issues over who's responsible for what. But I don't know to what extent those issues are mirrored in other public sector organisations. Those that are properly protected by GSI [Government Secure Intranet] should be less porous," he added. ®